Gamble-Huff Music

MusicGet on Board the Soul Train: The Sound of Philadelphia International Records Vol. 1

Get on Board the Soul Train: The Sound of Philadelphia International Records Vol. 1

The new box set examines the early years of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records, a soul-music label that defined its city the way Stax did Memphis and Motown did Detroit.

One of the biggest hits of the early 1970s was inspired by people watching. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, already titans of soul in Philadelphia, would sit at their favorite downtown bar and watch the same people order the same drinks every day. One couple stood out: The man and woman would meet at the same time, sit in the same booth, play the same songs on the jukebox, then go their separate ways. Gamble and Huff were songwriters, and they idly devised a backstory for the man and woman, something about two married people scheduling daily trysts with the sad knowledge that their love would never be more than that hour at the bar. They set the story to a melody and gave it to an artist on their Philadelphia International label named Billy Paul, a jazz singer they were trying to transform into an R&B star. He knew “Me and Mrs. Jones” was a hit as soon as he recorded it.

Projecting a very 1970s kind of cool, with a gravelly yet agile voice, Paul plays down his usual vocal improvisations on the song in order to elongate the notes. It’s a way of drawing out the moment: When he sings, “We got a thing going on,” he holds “thing” a few beats longer than expected, giving those adulterous lovers a little more time together. The billowy arrangement by Bobby Martin, full of elegant strings and weightless guitar, is similarly patient. Like the infidelity ballad “Dark End of the Street,” it’s a song that shuts out the whole world. “Me and Mrs. Jones” reached No. 1 on the Hot 100, selling more than 4 million copies—all the more impressive given that white radio stations routinely dismissed similar R&B singles as “too Black.”

The song established Paul as a sophisticated artist and a sensitive vocal interpreter, although he’d never again enjoy such a smash. “Me and Mrs. Jones” became his signature song; more than that, it became a signature song for the era and a paragon of Philly soul, a velvety strain of R&B whose opulent orchestrations added heightened drama to everyday predicaments experienced by Black Americans in this new decade. The style was pioneered by Gamble and Huff, a pair of sidemen turned songwriters turned businessmen, whose Philadelphia International Records (PIR) did for Pennsylvania’s largest city what FAME did for Muscle Shoals, Stax did for Memphis, and Motown did for Detroit.

Founded in 1971, their label is the subject of a new compilation that collects remastered versions of PIR’s first eight LPs, released from 1971 through 1973. Commemorating the label’s 50th anniversary, Get On Board the Soul Train will be followed by more volumes tracing its outsize influence throughout the decade. But this one is a good introduction to PIR in particular and to Philly soul in general, as it shows how the label and the genre were born out of the city’s secular and sacred music scenes. Starting in the 1940s and 1950s, small gospel groups and street-corner doo-wop ensembles alike relied on tight harmonies and theatrical spoken-word interludes, and a few of them survived long enough to work with Gamble and Huff.

Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, for example, were veterans of the touring circuit by the time they released their PIR debut, I Miss You, in 1972, playing to white audiences and Black audiences—but not at the same time. Their close harmonies provided a structured backdrop against which their two lead vocalists—Melvin and a rising star named Teddy Pendergrass—could improvise and testify. There’s a smooth theatricality to their album, whose songs are often interrupted by lengthy romantic monologues addressed to an imagined lover. On “Be Real,” Pendergrass gives us a one-sided argument, as though he’s practicing it in his head for whenever he finally musters the courage to confront her. Gamble and Huff may have written (or co-written) most of these songs, but the singers put their own stamp on them, especially on “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” It’s one of Gamble and Huff’s best and most heartbreaking compositions, and Bobby Martin’s string arrangement lifts the song a few feet off the ground, but it’s Pendergrass’ impassioned delivery that makes it a stone soul classic.

The O’Jays take that sound even further on their PIR debut, 1972’s Back Stabbers, simultaneously refining and deconstructing the R&B vocal group sound. “992 Arguments” and “Time to Get Down” are exciting in their taut vocal choreography, and “Love Train” churns up enough exuberance to make its hippy-dippy sentiment sound realistic, even feasible. But “When the World’s at Peace” takes everything apart, spiraling into a lengthy coda where the voices deliver disembodied rhythms. It’s a moment that echoes both the disillusionment of Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On and the beleaguered optimism of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. It’s a genius bit of sequencing to follow that song up with the masterful title track, whose paranoia is lent credence by its funky, cinematic arrangement. “Back Stabbers” is the inverse of “Love Train”: ostensibly about romantic rivals making time with your special lady, it signals broader concerns about America in the ’70s. Especially when paired with Undisputed Truth’s 1971 hit “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” it sounds like a rebuttal of the ubiquitous smiley face that became the decade’s unofficial logo.

Both “Back Stabbers” and “Love Train” were big hits, but not everything that PIR did landed so well. Dick Jensen was a Hawaiian lounge singer who managed to parlay the public’s fascination with the 50th state into a Vegas residency and a handshake association with the Rat Pack. Sammy Davis Jr. had a smash with “Candy Man” in 1972, so perhaps the label thought there might be a market for a handsome crooner. Backed by what was solidifying into the label’s multiracial house band, Jensen sounds completely out of his element on “I Don’t Want to Cry” and “32nd Street,” like Engelbert Humperdinck collaborating with Isaac Hayes, and it’s not hard to see why he’s usually omitted from Philly soul playlists and box sets. Still, his version of “Going Up On a Mountain” is mighty, and he’s an intriguing discovery on this set, if only for making every other artist sound a little more exciting.

For the most part, PIR stuck with what worked. The Intruders had been singing locally since the ’50s, and Gamble and Huff had written and produced their 1968 breakout hit “Cowboys to Girls.” Their PIR debut, Save the Children, is a deeply eccentric take on Philly soul, starting with their cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s title track and extending to their disarmingly sweet “I’ll Always Love My Mama,” a song that ought to be unbearable but somehow isn’t. Their cover of “Mother & Child Reunion” makes good on Paul Simon’s world-music aspirations, and “I Wanna Know Your Name” stops everything so Sam “Little Sonny” Brown can recite his Tinder profile: “I drive a little red Volkswagen/I like to go horseback riding/I like all kinds of sweets/Cupcakes, currants, things like that.” It has the effect of grounding the song in reality; like “Me and Mrs. Jones,” it creates its own space separate from the larger world, this time with pastries.

Credited on Save the Children for the first time ever was PIR’s house band, MFSB (short for Mother Father Sister Brother), a group of veteran studio players that had gelled into its own distinct entity, not unlike Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra. Their self-titled debut, boasting some of the funkiest artwork in the label’s history, opens with a florid interpretation of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddy’s Dead.” Where the original was fleet and street tough, MFSB’s cover is maximalist: a block party set to music. That applies to most of the songs on MFSB, including their cover of “Back Stabbers,” which is essentially the band covering itself. In fact, half the fun of this box set is hearing these artists comment so creatively on other pop trends, as they reach out and bring a little Philly to other cities and scenes.

MFSB in particular would prove prolific and highly successful throughout the ’70s, but the early years of PIR, the years covered by this box set, belonged to Billy Paul. He gets three of the eight albums here, which speaks to his breakout status as the label’s biggest star. As such, he’s the only artist to have much of a trajectory in this volume. On Going East, the label’s first LP, he establishes a sound and an approach, especially with his imaginative covers of Les McCann’s “Compared to What” and “Magic Carpet Ride,” a song so ubiquitous that you might think there’s no way it could ever sound new. But Paul and the studio musicians take Steppenwolf’s familiar riff and turn it into a jazzy shuffle, upbeat and inviting, especially when the flute comes in. Paul scats the lyrics, essentially rewriting them with his rat-a-tat delivery, turning a song about getting high into an anthem for getting down.

That confidence is even more pronounced on 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, which contains “Me and Mrs. Jones” along with another set of covers. Rather than sounding slow and self-congratulatory, his version of Elton John’s “Your Song” is bright, exuberant, witty, overjoyed—a declaration of love by a man who sounds like he can’t believe he’s found the real thing. It should have been a hit, but PIR was unprepared to capitalize on the success of Paul’s breakout single and released the “Am I Black Enough for You,” penned by Gamble and Huff. It’s a fantastic song, with a hip-shaking horn section and a tone somewhere between playful and angry, but it was not a song that was going to get the same kind of widespread radio play. And his follow-up album didn’t even contain new material. Instead, it was a reissue of his 1970 LP Ebony Woman (released on Gamble and Huff’s previous label, Neptune Records). Paul doesn’t show the same dramatic flair with lyrics as he does on his other two albums in this set, so there’s not much purpose to his deconstruction of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” With its meandering arrangements and stiff playing, it sounds like a step backwards for Paul as well as for this otherwise triumphant collection. (A better end point would have been the other album that was reissued at the same time, 1968’s Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club, but presumably that will kick off volume two.)

Get On Board the Soul Train, however, is the rare box set that’s actually more than the sum of its parts. The highs on here are higher than the lows are low, and, more significantly, the warts-and-all approach creates a compelling context for Dick Jensen and the O’Jays alike. Too often soul music from this and previous eras is dismissed as a singles genre, a backhanded compliment that assumes Black artists couldn’t possibly sustain the longer or more complex statement that an album demands. Previous PIR reissues have served up some full LPs (most notably 2014’s Philadelphia International Records – The Collection), but by making room for every LP, this particular set argues persuasively that Philly Soul was a collaboration among songwriters, arrangers, producers, session players, and singers—which doesn’t diminish the work of the artists who got their name on the spines but elevates everyone else. Together, they established a sound that beautifully synthesized jazz, soul, funk, soundtracks, and avant-garde composition, and soon they would refine that concoction into disco. In fact, one of the earliest examples of the disco beat—you know the one, with the excitable 4/4 clip, heavy on the high hat—was played by MFSB’s Earl Young on Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ 1973 smash “The Love I Lost,” but that’s for another volume.

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